Grouping strategies in number estimation extend the subitizing range
When asked to estimate the number of items in a visual array, educated adults and children are more precise and rapid if the items are clustered into small subgroups rather than randomly distributed. This phenomenon, termed “groupitizing”, is thought to rely on the recruitment of the subitizing system (dedicated to the perception of very small numbers), with the aid of simple arithmetical calculations. The aim of current study is to verify whether the advantage for clustered stimuli does rely on subitizing, by manipulating attention, known to strongly affect attention. Participants estimated the numerosity of grouped or ungrouped arrays in condition of full attention or while attention was diverted with a dual-task. Depriving visual attention strongly decreased estimation precision of grouped but not of ungrouped arrays, as well as increasing the tendency for numerosity estimation to regress towards the mean. Additional explorative analyses suggested that calculation skills correlated with the estimation precision of grouped, but not of ungrouped, arrays. The results suggest that groupitizing is an attention-based process that leverages on the subitizing system. They also suggest that measuring numerosity estimation thresholds with grouped stimuli may be a sensitive correlate of math abilities.